Monday, April 26, 2010

The Power in the Struggle

“One day a man noticed a cocoon on a tree branch.  It had a small opening and he saw that a butterfly was beginning to emerge.  The butterfly struggled mightily to release itself from the cocoon and then stopped, seemingly stuck and exhausted. In an act of kindness the man ran his fingernail down the length of the cocoon and opened it.  He expected to see the butterfly expand its wings and fly away.  Instead, the butterfly dropped to the ground, unable to fly.  The wings were emaciated and its body was bloated.  For the brief period it lived, it could never fly.”
Author Unknown

Many of you have either read or heard this parable before.  No matter how many times I read it I am still amazed by the power of its message.  While simple, it should remind us to avoid of a key trap of leadership. “White Knight Syndrome.” 

What is “White Knight Syndrome?”  This is an expression I like to use that gives us insight into a common behavior trap of leaders and managers.  The parable explains it perfectly.  As leaders we are driven to succeed and as such want our teams and followers to succeed as well.  We are drawn into the falsehood that making the struggle easier will help those we lead be successful.  With today’s pace we find ourselves falling into the trap of providing answers or doing the work ourselves rather than allowing our teams and those we lead to grow from the struggle of the task.  Most of us do this for the sake of expedience but lose the most powerful application, growth from the struggle.

We rush in to help like the “White Knight” on horseback, convinced that slaying the problem for our people will get us to our goal more quickly.  It may, but how many problems can we solve?  We are limited by our own capacity, and as a consequence, being the White Knight limits the team’s capacity as well. Instead of the team succeeding we are destined to mediocrity because a White Knight, no matter how good, can only slay so many problems. 

What’s a Knight to do?  Recognize the power in the struggle for the growth and development of those we lead.  This is an opportunity to practice what we learned in my last blog. Use the Power of Reflection to help you increase the capacity of your team.  Before you rush in to solve the problem, provide the answer or do the work: STOP, REFLECT and ASK yourself if you are helping them grow their own capacity.  Try asking these questions:

  • If I give them the answer, am I limiting their own problem solving skills?
  • If I do the work, am I disabling their capacity to learn and be motivated for the next time?
  • If I handle this today, what happens when I have ten of these tomorrow? Will I be slowing the team down?

Remember the old saying: “give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime.”  

Ok now that I have mentioned butterflies, cocoons and fish, I can officially call this blog “Green.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

“Lather, Rinse, Repeat”

Warning, makers of shampoo products are urging us to fall into a leadership trap! 

Most of us don’t give much thought to these instructions; we simply “Lather, Rinse and Repeat.”  After all, that’s we’re supposed to do.  But when we apply this same approach to decision making, Action, Decision, Repeat, we have fallen into one of the most serious leadership traps. 

As leaders in an organization we are bombarded with communication, feedback, and requests.  It’s our job to make decisions and keep our business moving forward.  Our natural tendency is to collect some information, make a decision and move on to the next one.  We do this because the pace demands it.     

When we continue to operate in this way, we miss the single most powerful leadership tool; the power of reflection.  In general most of us learn from our mistakes.  If not, we are destined to repeat them and fail.  The power of reflection not only gives us a way to learn from our mistakes, but to accelerate our personal and company’s growth through our successes. 

Adapted from Hogan Assessment Systems

Nimble organizations pride themselves on continuous learning and innovation.  In fact, innovation is born from the power of reflection.  But this is only true if our behavior changes based on what we have discovered. 

Reflection is accomplished by asking one simple, properly timed question.  What did I learn from that last experience?”  Answering this will give us the space to reflect, adjust and accelerate our growth.  You may feel that you already do this. Perhaps, but I would like to offer one tip, write it down.  To really get the most out of reflection, take a moment and write down what you learned and what you will do differently the next time.  Once your idea becomes black and white, the odds of you internalizing it and adjusting your behavior increase significantly.

Avoid the shampoo trap!  Reflect on what you have done right and what you have done wrong; but more importantly what you will do differently next time. 

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” James Levine    

Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Moses am I sore!

About a month ago I took my two boys snowboarding. I have been a snow skier most of my life and have always enjoyed the experience. I quickly became bored with skiing after moving to the Midwest from the Northeast when I realized that when Midwesterners refer to skiing on “the hill” they are being literal. Mountains are mountains in the Northeast, and in the Midwest, well… not so much. I love Chicago, but remember that in the Midwest you can go two hours in almost any direction and you’re still in a cornfield.

So, at forty seven years old I thought I would try snowboarding. Despite the limited challenge of the terrain, I am now learning humility all over again. I’m learning that change is difficult (and painful), especially when you’re doing things that on the surface may seem similar, but in reality are vastly different. The landscape is the same, the tools are made out of the same material, you use the same machinery to get you to the top, but that’s where it ends. For all that’s similar, there’s that much more that’s different.

I had assumed that the skills I used that made me successful as a skier could make me successful on “the board.” Wrong. Balance, coordination, timing on the turns, managing the speed, using the edges for control, all different. This becomes crystal clear to you on two occasions: the first is getting off the chair lift, and the second is trying to stop so you don’t kill someone innocently waiting on “the hill.”

It’s odd that skills that make us successful can hurt us even more when applied to situations that seem similar. Skills that enable us can disable us just as quickly (sometimes literally). I didn’t do this because I am a masochist. I didn’t do this because I was bored (well sort of). I really did this because I needed to accomplish something I didn’t think I could do. I am determined to snowboard the black diamonds at the top. I was looking to test myself and see if I could adapt and change.

By the way, this lesson applies to leaders too. Just when you think the skills and abilities that got you to the top will keep you there, something forces you to change. Successful leaders seek out experiences that keep them humble, and adapt to situations that require change. Successful leaders embrace the sore muscles and bruises of change, in fact they welcome them.  There is risk in change, but there is more risk in not changing.

If you really want to see if you’re an adaptable leader, try “snowboarding.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I’m the Boss, Now What?

I’m the Boss, Now What?

So you’ve reached a position of leadership, good for you! The view can be good from up here, but now you’re working without a safety net.

Why do some leaders continue to ascend while others plateau or fail? People driven to succeed often move into roles that require them to lead others. There are those who take to this role like a duck to water. We shower them with platitudes like: “he has charisma” or “she really gets it” or “I would walk through a wall for them.” There are those who get leadership roles as a consequence of their skills and abilities as a technician in their field. We follow them because we respect the fact that they have figured something out the rest of us haven’t. Some simply fall into leadership roles because when the organization asked for volunteers and everyone lined up on the line, the rest of the group stepped back and they were busy checking their blackberry. For as many leaders as there are in the world, there are different paths to the top. The point being, leadership is personal.

Why is it that some continue to rise and some don’t? Those who top out have probably fallen into one of the key traps of leadership. Their ego has outpaced their intellect.

When ego outpaces intellect a leader has begun to believe the platitudes and all else be damned. They have missed a key to continued leadership success, self awareness. They have forgotten about the others that propel the business forward by; executing the plan, building customer relationships, selling the product and “hammering the nails.”

The result of this phenomenon is leadership stagnation, frustration and in some cases outright failure. How do you know if you’re in this situation? Here are some questions you should ask:

Reflection – look back on recent discussions you’ve had with your managers or employees. When you met with them where was the discussion focused? Was it all about your ideas or did you focus on them, their ideas and their development? In every meeting with members of your team did you try to make them better?

Feedback – do you seek out feedback from those you lead? If so, what do you do with it? If you act on it and adjust your approach then you may be ok. If you hear it and trash it, watch out. Ask someone you trust and who will be honest with you for their perspective. And listen to what they say.

Change – ask others their view of how you handle change. A key trait of successful leaders is adaptability. Are you “Gumby” or are you a “pet rock?”

Disclosure – do those who follow you know you? I mean really know you? The most successful leaders are authentic. They build trust by sharing aspects about themselves with their team. The good, the bad and the ugly. They let them in. Do you?

Diversity – take an inventory of your team. What do you see? If your team is filled with “mini me’s” look out. Perennially successful leaders surround themselves with people who; think differently, approach problems differently, have complementary skills, and see the world from a different perspective. These differences create conflict, but also create success.

There they are, simple questions with complex answers designed to see if your ego is outpacing your intellect. Give it a try. Go slowly, take small steps in asking the questions and seeking the answers, but get started.

There’s an old saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Put on your shoes.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Coach by any other name

Thirty years later I can still hear his voice thundering in my ears: “Get away from it, get away from it!”  Punt returns in a football game  can be very stressful.  On a bad kick we were taught to let the ball pass by, treat it like a live grenade.  Take the favorable yardage donated to us by our opponent.

If only our business competitors could give us a bad punt or two from time to time.  Business may be a competition, but the dynamics are very different, despite the analogies and rhetoric.

Do a little experiment.  List as many really good coaches as you can in the next fifteen seconds.  I would be willing to bet that the majority of you will have an impressive list of sports coaches, but few business ones.  Despite the fact that as a kid I dreamed of becoming an NFL star, I have far outpaced my expectations in business success.  A key reason, business coaches.  (And damn little football talent beyond the high school level)

Coaches come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments.   All effective coaches know one thing, the person they are coaching has everything they need inside of them to be successful.  A truly skilled coach can bring that to light.  There are some big differences  between coaching in sport and coaching in business, but the previously mentioned secret remains constant for both.

Skilled business coaches know another secret.  Don’t expect the mountain to come to you, you need to go to the mountain.  Or, put another way, if you want to help others succeed through coaching, you need to adapt to their style of development.

Contrast this with coaching in sport.  Good athletic coaches teach, motivate, help build character and set a tone of  “my way or the highway.”  They have to do this because they are as much leaders as they are coaches.  Good business coaches do not need to lead (although they can be leaders in an organization), they need to serve.  Good business coaches are there for the individual, to bring the latent talent to light.

Coaching is one of the most effective tools a professional can have whether they are a leader, manager or individual contributor.  Coaching for Effective Performance delivers an increased level of competence in this vital skill by introducing coaching skills and creating an environment where the skill can be practiced.

Self-awareness, a key to success

I was working in my office late one evening, when a client called me upset about a recently missed promotional opportunity.  He couldn't understand why he had been passed by for what seemed to be a fore gone conclusion.  We spent some time discussing the situation and after a period of reflection,  it seemed pretty clear what had happened.

A part of the process involved getting feedback from his bosses peer group.  While it had never been put directly before, it was clear that the feedback his boss received was negative.  I asked him if this was a surprise.  "Shock" is the best description he could give.  "Like being hit with a two by four."  A look of pain crossed his face as he struggled to comprehend.

After further discussion he realized that, while he was never given direct feedback, all the tell tale signs of their perceptions were there.  It took some good questioning and a look backwards at the behavior of his bosses peer group over several interactions, but then it all came clear.
His own behavior was driving the negative perception, even though he couldn't see it.  It was like being in quicksand, and the more he behaved in ways that had been rewarded in the past, the more he sank into negative perceptions.

He has now come to realize that without understanding the perception others have of his behavior, especially those in a position of influence and power, he will continue to sink under his own weight (or behavior).  A hard way to learn a valuable lesson. The things we are not aware of, but others are, can have a significant impact on our future.

Even if this has never happened to you it's important to know that others perceptions are their realities.  What you learn and how you deal with it can accelerate your growth both personally and professionally.
One way to increase your self-awareness is to take a third party view of yourself and do the heavy lifting of taking stock and making changes.  In our Executive and Management Assessment for Improved Performance course you can focus on this key to success.  Once you understand this, you can harness the power of self-awareness as a competitive advantage.